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Rwandan Genocide Survivors Still Face Enormous Challenges - 2004-04-03


Among the survivors of the bloody 1994 ethnic genocide in Rwanda, few have suffered more in the past decade than Rwandan children, many of whom have grown up as homeless orphans or the sole caretakers of younger siblings. These victims of the genocide still face enormous daily challenges as they try to survive in a poor country.

Jane Kayiranawa's mother, father, and four brothers and sisters were among the tens of thousands who died during the early days of the three-and-a-half month-long genocide.

On April 7, 1994, ethnic Hutus, whipped up into a frenzy by Rwanda's then Hutu extremist-led government, began the systematic slaughter of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsi rivals and politically moderate Hutus who did not support them. More than 800,000 people were killed in the rampage.

The petite teenager was just eight-years-old when Hutu extremists, armed with machetes, burst into the house and hacked her entire family to death in front of her.

For reasons Ms. Kayiranawa says she still does not understand, the killers let her go. She spent weeks hiding and sleeping in bushes, scrounging and begging for food when she could safely do so. Most of the time, though, she says she went hungry.

In a voice still heavy with sadness, Ms. Kayiranawa says even when the killings stopped, life did not get much better for her.

Ms. Kayiranawa says when the genocide ended in July, she still did not have a place to live. The new Tutsi-led government that took power in Rwanda tried to help orphans like her. But the government had little money and all it could do was round up the orphans and give them shelter in makeshift tents. But food was so scarce, many of the children were forced to strike out on their own to survive.

Kigali social worker, Beatha Uwazaninka, says many of those children soon fell prey to local gangs and unscrupulous adults, who adopted them and then turned them into household slaves or worse.

"They become prostitutes," she said. "They can be thieves. Children are abused in families, children who are eight-years-old."

Other children bounced from one foster home to another, missing out on years of education.

Social workers say many of these orphans, severely traumatized by their experiences during the genocide, remained emotionally withdrawn or suffered nightmares and insomnia. Many could not concentrate and dropped out of school. They say adoptive families soon became tired of their behavior and kicked them out.

More than 400 such unwanted orphans are now living in the Kimironko Orphan Village on the outskirts of Kigali. There is no electricity or running water in the 84 houses that make up the complex. Each house consists of three small concrete rooms, barely large enough to fit two single beds.

Residents here say a government-funded organization, charged with helping genocide survivors, built the housing project several years ago. The organization also promised to give each orphan $20 a month to buy food and other essentials.

But Jane Kayiranawa, who is a resident at Kimironko, says no one has received any money for months.

Ms. Kayiranawa says the organization has told her that it is short of funds and the money it does have must be given to families and orphans who are still homeless. Social worker Beatha Uwazaninka says the Rwandan government, still struggling to rebuild its devastated economy, is simply too poor to take care of the special needs of the hundreds of thousands of children orphaned by the genocide.

"That is what made me feel to help them because I was one of them," said Beatha Uwazaninka. "I know how hunger feels."

Ms. Uwazaninka, who was 14-years-old in 1994, was living in Kigali with her uncle and five cousins when the killings began. After Hutu extremists massacred her family, she fled and hid wherever she could, including under piles of rotting corpses.

Through sheer will and determination, Ms. Uwazaninka found work as a waitress and managed to save enough money to pay for evening courses in English and the computer.

Today, she is a successful social worker and fund raiser in Kigali, dedicated to helping those who have not been as fortunate as her. She says she is appealing to as many international donors, agencies, and companies as she can to raise money for the orphans.

Ms. Uwazaninka says one of the orphans she wants to help most is Jane Kayiranawa, whose life so closely mirrors her own trauma-filled childhood.

"It's not a matter of how she is today," she said. "How will she grow up? That's the problem. It is my opportunity to try to help. "

Last year in a report, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called on the Rwandan government to improve the plight of vulnerable children. The organization says it believes the most devastating legacy of the genocide is the sheer number of orphans it left behind and the government's failure to properly protect them from abuse and exploitation.

Rwandan officials say they have recently adopted a national policy for orphans and child-headed households, recommending that a system of community-based care and protection be established to ensure the children's long-term security.

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